CSU professors discuss the healthy side of bacteria

Your body is covered in them. Inside and outside, bacteria are everywhere — it’s in what you eat, what you drink, it’s on everything you touch. But microbes have been around for 4 billion years — it is no wonder that our bodies are coated with them.

Bacteria, a type of microorganism, are found in almost every type of environment, according to Dr. Erica Suchman, professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and pathology. Bacteria can survive in temperatures ranging from the icy lakes of Antarctica to the boiling hot thermal vents of Yellowstone.

“They have the ability to reproduce very rapidly, and have the ability to exchange genetic information which allows them to adapt very quickly,” Suchman said.

Fortunately, scientists and health professionals are teaming up to understand the complex bacterial ecosystem to reduce illness.

“In reality, the vast majority of interactions we have with bacteria are beneficial to us,” Suchman said. “We’re just learning medically how to manipulate some of these relationships to improve human health — we’re learning how to live widely with bacteria instead of just considering them as adversaries.”

Bacteria that are bad for you, called pathogens, are not the only things being harmed by the use of antibiotics and antimicrobial soaps. According to Suchman, using things like antibacterial soaps are actually harmful to good bacteria, too.

“Don’t use antibiotics when you don’t need to. Just wash your hands to get the pathogens off. If you get rid of the normal flora, you can get sick because there will be less competition for pathogens,” Suchman said.

If we continue to flush our system with antibiotics and antibacterial soap, there may not be enough good bacteria to keep away the bad bacteria.

A Gram-negative bacterial flagellum
A Gram-negative bacterial flagellum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The bacteria on our skin, you can think of them as a protective barrier for pathogens,” according to Dr. Mary Stromberger, associate professor of soil microbiology, in the department of soil and crop sciences. “Getting dirty is actually a good thing.”

Humans could not live without bacteria and other microorganisms. They create our environment and keep us healthy.

“Over 90% of the cells in or on our body are bacterial cells,” Stromberger said.

“We evolved into a microbial world,” said Dr. Matthew Wallenstein, assistant professor in ecosystem science and sustainability. “You’d be hard pressed to find the smallest patch on earth that isn’t coated with bacteria, even in the harshest environments.”

According to Wallenstein, promoting biodiversity may be the best way we have to ensure that beneficial microbial communities are present, when you have ecosystems that are diverse communities it increases the chances of having microbes that can fight off the pathogens.

“We’ve always been dealing with microbes for good and bad, so they’re a natural part of our health,” Wallenstein said. “Then we start in recent years using antibacterial soaps and trying to sterilize our environment and in a lot of ways that kind of backfired.”

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Remi Boudreau can be reached at news@collegian.com.